Monday, May 29, 2006

Legal System Musing

I went to court with my son this week. He was caught in a sting at his job for selling alcohol to an under aged decoy. Naturally they had to fire him and end his six-month career as a convenience store clerk. (This could lead me into a long diatribe about the law-maker's fixation on alcohol and tobacco as the twin peaks of evil in our society but that is not where I am headed today). The court scheduled his arraignment this week and my son, in his ignorance, asked his dad for advice.

I gave him suggestions based on my understanding of court processes. Dress up, admit that you did incorrectly read the ID and that you did sell alcohol to a minor, be contrite and respectful to the judge. I was hoping that for a first offence, there might be a waived or reduced fine and a stern warning about another offence. This was based upon an understanding that the job of a judge was to make a judgment. Silly me. My understanding of the court system is based on an old vision of the courts that possibly never existed.

We get to the court, pass the metal detector and take our place in the chamber. Looking around I see two other well-dressed young men sitting with a parent. The remaining people are dressed like they just rushed in from digging a cesspool. Well, I think, so much the better for my son.

Then the judge appears. He just sidles in and sits. No "ll Rise". No robe. No ceremony. I don't think we would have noticed if he didn't start talking. He begins to tell us why we are here. What to expect and what not to expect.

“You see”, he explains, -and I am paraphrasing here-"You have two choices. You can plead guilty or not-guilty. No contest has the same result as pleading guilty." Of course he is a lawyer, so it took him much longer to say. He went on for a long time about other issues related to sentences essentially saying that he might offer something special and if he did you would have to take it now. And that if you choose 'not guilty' you had better get yourself a lawyer.

Well, my son had decided that he was guilty and unless there were mitigating circumstances regarding the 'sting''there was no way he could argue not guilty. So no problem, we sit and wait for our turn.

The first person called been arraigned for the same offence as my son (or almost, she had sold tobacco to a minor but apparently that is just as evil as alcohol). She pled guilty. The judge asked it she really meant it. She repeated that she really really meant it so he sentenced her to a fine of $724 and two year's probation during which time if she broke any other laws something bad would happen.

Well, we picked up our jaws from the floor and discussed the $724 fine. How was he going to pay it now that he has lost his job. We almost missed the judge offering payment options to the woman. It seems that he would give her payments of $50 per month until it is paid. She took his offer and the clerk called the next miscreant.

She was a nicely dressed woman appearing for DUI. Same script, only her fine was $1,000. Then my son was called. Same script again. Same fine as the first woman. We picked up the paper work, left the court house and drove home.
The whole process leaves me with several thoughts, not one of which is favorable to the justice system.

First, what was the point of the judge? There was no 'judging' going on in that courtroom. Everything was black and white, yes and no. There was no reason for the judge to be present, particularly since his salary and office expenses were probably costing $150/hour or more. There was no justification for a person of any sort. The process could have been handled by a computer program or even a dumb form. There was no reason to even go to the court house.

Second, if you insist on making people appear in a courtroom, then give it some posture. Dress the judge in a robe. Have all rise when he enters the court and treat the court process as something important rather than a borinh administrative excercise

Third, what is really important here? Do we want people to respect the law and the legal processes? Or is this just another excuse to pad government revenue? What is happening to our legal system? The only experience most people I know have with the legal system is to extort money. The only time you see a cop is when he is ticketing you for a seat belt violation or other trivial nanny state offense. And when you go to court, it is just to grind you through the process and take money. It won't be long before normal citizens start resenting the money spent on law enforcement because you can't find a policeman when you actually have a crime but you know he is right there hiding behind a tree when you forget your seatbelt.

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